CHARLOTTE, N .C. – Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule says he wants full Cam Newton, not Cam Newton lite.
Nobody knows what that is better than former Carolina coach Ron Rivera, who on Sunday returns to Bank of America Stadium (1 p.m. ET, Fox) as the coach of the Washington Football Team, with Newton expected to make his first start in his second stint with the Panthers.
From “Superman’’ and “dabbing’’ celebrations, to outrageous postgame outfits to an ability to keep defensive coordinators up nights scheming for arguably the best dual-threat quarterback in NFL history, Rivera has seen it all with Newton.
Rivera’s strength was he let Newton be Newton, something those who played with the 2015 NFL MVP believe is essential for Newton to be successful under Rhule.
“If he’s willing to let Cam kind of go and run, do his thing, and be the energy, and kind of bring the positive vibe of day-to-day, if he's willing to let that happen, it can work out,’’ said Derek Anderson, who was Newton's backup during Rivera’s first seven seasons with the Panthers.
Rivera and Newton spent nine years (2011-19) together at Carolina. Newton helped Rivera win two NFL Coach of the Year awards and become the team’s all-time winningest coach with 76 victories. Rivera helped Newton reach an iconic status.
They both helped each other reach Super Bowl 50 in 2015.
One could argue neither would have been as successful without the other -- particularly Newton, because Rivera let his flamboyant quarterback be himself.
“He is a special individual and has this magnetic personality,’’ Rivera said. “If you take the time to understand him, you’re going to see the positivity that he creates.’’
Newton is appreciative, calling Rivera’s willingness to let him show his personality “great.’’ But he refused to make Sunday about the two of them.
“Man, it’s not about us.’’ he said. “He knows how I feel about him. And he knows what it’s going to be on Sunday.’’
Rivera called it a “bold move’’ for the Panthers (5-5) to bring Newton back after a year and a half with New England before being cut on Aug. 30. He also said it was “cool’’ to see it working.
Several of Newton’s former Carolina teammates agreed.
“Can’t make this stuff up,’’ said San Francisco cornerback Josh Norman, who played with Newton and Rivera from 2012-15. “Stuff for movies, man.’’
Anderson called it “crazy.’’
“It’s obviously going to be a little weird, for sure too,’’ he said. “And the crowd’s gonna be electric.’’
Former Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart agreed.
“There's gonna be a lot of emotion from the standpoint of the fans seeing a coach that came in and changed the culture, a player that came and change the culture,’’ he said. “It really changed it for the whole NFL in a lot of ways.’’
Newton’s personality was in full force during Sunday’s 34-10 win at the Arizona Cardinals.
After his 2-yard touchdown run on his first play he ripped off his helmet, ran to the sideline and shouted, “I’m baaaack!’’
Asked earlier this week how he would manage the quarterback’s big personality, Rhule didn’t hesitate.
“I don’t want Cam lite,’’ he said. “I want full Cam, as long as Cam is focused on football, which he is, so it’s easy.’’
It was easy, for the most part, for Rivera. Having come from the 1985 Chicago Bears that exuded personality -- like the “Super Bowl Shuffle’’ music video -- helped.
Rivera also knew, when it mattered, Newton’s focus was on football.
What Rivera calls a “poignant moment’’ in their relationship occurred in 2013 when he started taking chances on fourth down to earn the title “Riverboat Ron.’’
“He came over to me after we scored at home versus the Giants and told me, ‘I’ll never let you down,’’’ Rivera recalled. “I never forgot that.’’
Ties and more ties
Another big moment occurred in 2016 when Newton was benched for the first series at the Seattle Seahawks because he violated the dress code by not wearing a tie on the plane.
“He let Cam be Cam, but also required or expected him to behave and do things a certain way at work,’’ Anderson said. “That was probably the peak of their battle. If you’re building a team and building a franchise, you can’t just let it slide.’’
Norman, who also has a big personality, understands. The moment that ties him and Newton together was a fight during the 2015 training camp after he stiff-armed the quarterback, who was trying to tackle him after an interception.
Norman reminded later that few quarterbacks would have tried, adding, “That’s what you want in a leader.’’
Norman and Newton went on to become close after Norman signed with Washington in 2016. Never did he believe Newton would return to Carolina.
“It’s kind of crazy how it all worked out,’’ he said. “Wow! That’s an act of faith past beyond ... that’s something that the Father did. You can’t touch that. You can’t write that script. That’s faith, man.’’
One moment Rivera wishes he’d had more control of was the negative reaction Newton got for abruptly cutting his Super Bowl postgame interview short.
“People don’t realize how devastating it was to him,’’ Rivera said. “He wants to win.’’
Rhule wants to win too. That’s why he turned to Newton, a player he released in 2020 because there were too many questions about the quarterback's shoulder and foot injuries.
He brought Newton back, in part, because starter Sam Darnold suffered a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve for 4-6 weeks, and, in part, because Darnold struggled after a 3-0 start.
Fortunately for Rhule, Newton was healthy and available.
“It’s cool he’s back in Charlotte,’’ Rivera said. “He never wanted to leave. He loves that team. He loves that city.’’